Tag Archives: Kim Cusack

“TELL ME AGAIN. WHERE DID YOU COME FROM?”

Ray Skjelbred and the Cubs — that’s Ray, piano and inspiration; Kim Cusack, clarinet; Katie Cavera, guitar; Clint Baker, string bass; Jeff Hamilton — answer the musical question at the now-vanished Sacramento Jazz Jubilee (d. 2017), with the notes on the music staff written by Johnny Green as their guide, but also the many performances of this tune, including Bing Crosby, Coleman Hawkins, and Django Reinhardt.

I try to collect rather than hoard — the first is a vocation; the second a disorder — but I’ve been hoarding videos of Ray and his Cubs . . . the way I’d store food for the winter, until I have the good fortune to see them again. Soon, I hope. They mean so much more than canned tuna.

May your happiness increase!

“I LIKE IT, I LIKE IT”: A NEW CD BY JOHN ROYEN’S NEW ORLEANS RHYTHM: KIM CUSACK, STEVE PIKAL, JOSHUA GOUZY, HAL SMITH (2020)

If the names above are familiar to you — John Royen, piano; Kim Cusack, clarinet; Joshua Gouzy or Steve PIkal, string bass; Hal Smith, drums — then my copying Louis’ delighted exhortation will make perfect sense. To go a little deeper, here is a new CD, titled GREEN SWAMP, a Darnell Howard original. It contains seventeen performances and was beautifully recorded by New Orleans’ own Tim Stambaugh.

But perhaps four minutes of music would be a joy-spreading interlude at this point — a Don Ewell original, SOUTH SIDE STRUT, with Steve on string bass. (Don, as you might know, was John’s mentor: no one better.)

I have a familiar pride in this issue, because I wrote the notes:

In a society in love with newness, to call something “old-fashioned” may seem an insult.  Doesn’t everyone want the latest thing?  But to me that expression is another name for timeless beauty and virtue, creations that will last.  This CD is terribly “old-fashioned” and I am damned glad of it.

This music is melodic, swinging, affectionate.  It romps.  It grins.  The sounds embrace the listener; what comes out of the speaker sounds good, and that is no small thing (in Condon-terms, it is honey rather than broken glass to the ear).  Without gimmicks or jokes, the band says, “Come along with us.  We promise you a good time.”  Most of the tunes (“tunes” is another old-fashioned word, one I’d hate to lose) are medium-tempo, a little faster or slower: good for spur-of-the-moment-shoeless dancing in the kitchen.      

Captain John Royen doesn’t have that honorific only because he pilots a boat; his playing is wonderfully decisive: you know where you are at all times, and the trip is both elegant and exciting, as he steers by the lights of Ewell and Morton.  The Captain is also that reassuring evolutionary accomplishment: a two-handed orchestral pianist.  He doesn’t pound or race: you can set your clock by him.  His colleagues Pikal and Gouzy are just as reliable: they offer a limber rhythmic platform, flexible and stimulating.  Hal Smith is a master of swing and sonic variety: every note both propels and rings as he plays “for the comfort of the band.”  Finally, there’s the unequalled Kim Cusack, whose tone is lemonade in July, who creates memorable variations with lightness and fervor.  The repertoire is honorable melodies that are both venerable and fresh.  By the way, this is a band, not simply four soloists in the same room: listeners with even mildly functioning imaginations will sense these musicians smiling approval through every track.

I used to write long liner notes, supplying biography (Google made that redundant) and song origins (ditto), explaining musical nuances.  My new goal is to write notes that can be read in less than three minutes and twenty seconds, the time it took to play a 78 rpm record.  If more explanation is necessary, one of us has failed.  Not the band, I assure you.  Now, get to listening!  Joy awaits.

The other performances on the disc are I CAN’T BELIEVE THAT YOU’RE IN LOVE WITH ME / SQUEEZE ME / BLUES MY NAUGHTY SWEETIE GIVES TO ME / HONEY HUSH / I WOULD DO ANYTHING FOR YOU / SWEET SUBSTITUTE / HERE COMES THE BAND / OLD FASHIONED LOVE / PRETTY BABY / LOVE ME OR LEAVE ME / MONDAY DATE / BLUE, TURNING GREY OVER YOU / SAVE IT, PRETTY MAMA / BUSH STREET SCRAMBLE / DELMAR DRAG / GREEN SWAMP.

You can purchase the CD from either Hal or John at their websites — www.neworleansjazzpiano.com or www.halsmithmusic.com — for $20 postpaid. It’s quite wonderful. You heard it here first.

May your happiness increase!

INFINITE PROPULSION: RAY SKJELBRED AND HIS CUBS at the SACRAMENTO MUSIC FESTIVAL (RAY SKJELBRED, KIM CUSACK, CLINT BAKER, JEFF HAMILTON, KATIE CAVERA, May 25, 2014)

The Original, itself.

That’s 1929. But here’s 2014, at the Sacramento Music Festival — a hot Chicago-style performance (with “surprise vocal”) by the most eloquent Ray Skjelbred and his Cubs, who are Ray, piano; Kim Cusack, clarinet; Clint Baker, string bass; Katie Cavera, guitar; Jeff Hamilton, drums:

What a gorgeous serving of energies: “infinite propulsion” characterizes the song but also the Cubs, a band I look forward to seeing again . . . soon.

May your happiness increase!

“FINDING ANOTHER WORLD”: RAY SKJELBRED and his CUBS ASK A DEEP QUESTION (KIM CUSACK, CLINT BAKER, KATIE CAVERA, JEFF HAMILTON, Sacramento, May 25, 2014)

Ray Skjelbred is more than comfortable with taking risks — not hang-gliding or sky-diving, but performing new songs in front of an audience, as he does here. The clues are simple: “Three choruses.” “My favorite Gershwin song,” and he and his Cubs — Jeff Hamilton, drums; Kim Cusack, clarinet; Clint Baker, string bass; Katie Cavera, guitar — take us to another world:

Those of us who follow Ray, and Ray and his Cubs, might quickly associate them with the bedrock of Chicago jazz: dark-blue musings and skyrocket exuberance, and all that would be true. But their deep soulfulness comes out on a quiet but eloquent ballad performance such as this one.

The question is asked, and asked with feeling, leaving listeners to invent their own answers. Bless Ray, and all his friends.

May your happiness increase!

STIFF BREEZES, AN AMPHIBIAN LAMENT, and A LAPSED DARLING: RAY SKJELBRED and HIS CUBS — KIM CUSACK, RAY SKJELBRED, CLINT BAKER, KATIE CAVERA, JEFF HAMILTON (Sacramento Music Festival, May 25, 2014)

The Sacramento Music Festival, which we miss, was like a sandwich with the cole slaw coming out of the bread on all sides — tasty but messy, a danger to one’s outfit. Bands of all kinds jostled for audibility both in the open air and in unsuitable venues; the whole weekend had the air of a genial traveling carnival slightly awry.

But wonderful music happened in spite of the distractions. Here are two performances, hidden in the JAZZ LIVES archives for moments just such as this, by Ray Skjelbred and his Cubs, mining deep Chicago gold. They are Ray Skjelbred, piano; Kim Cusack, clarinet and vocal, Clint Baker, string bass; Jeff Hamilton, drums; Katie Cavera, guitar. Special effects provided by the winds of fate. (The Cubs should have played BREEZE, but that’s my comic sense, which can be disregarded without harm or wound.)

BULL FROG BLUES:

and that tale of The Ruined Maid, with her new hat and her dubious associations, NOBODY’S SWEETHEART NOW. And NOW as pronounced by Mr. Cusack is a marvel: young actors at the Old Vic study it but is remains elusive:

These performances are nearly seven years “old” but, as Ray says, “We play in the present tense.”

May your happiness increase!

OH, THEY DO: RAY SKJELBRED AND HIS CUBS (November 25, 2016)

I love this little band, in all its permutations, and I am not alone.  When they get onstage, the question posed above becomes completely rhetorical.  They most certainly have music, and they share it with us.  Here are five lovely (purple-hued) performances from the 2016 San Diego Jazz Fest, featuring Ray Skjelbred, piano; Katie Cavera, guitar; Clint Baker, string bass; Jeff Hamilton, drums; Marc Caparone, cornet; Dawn Lambeth, vocals.

Here’s LOVE IS JUST AROUND THE CORNER, evoking Eddie Condon and the first Commodore 78, and the swinging Bing Crosby version a few years earlier:

and James P. Johnson’s song, recorded by Henry “Red” Allen:

and a song associated with Lee Wiley, sweetly sung by Dawn Lambeth:

the beautiful Thirties ballad associated with Billie Holiday:

Finally, Dawn’s exposition of swing frustration (thanks to Walter Donaldson):

May your happiness increase!

“YOU GET A NUMBER FOR A NAME”: SCOTT ANTHONY with BOB SCHULZ and his FRISCO JAZZ BAND (Sacramento Music Festival, May 26, 2014)

Here’s a parable about someone who fools the “chumps,” who lies for power and profit.  (It’s also Country Bumpkin and City Slicker, or Crime Doesn’t Pay.)

Exhibit A:

Exhibit B (thanks to Amy King):

I’ve been thinking about WISE GUYS of late.  But first, a story.

My friend in graduate school, Sal, once told me, “My father grew up poor, so he had a very loose attitude toward property.  If it was unattached, it became his.  So I grew up thinking that was OK, that ‘everybody does it’ — sugar packets, office supplies.  Nothing big, but it was an attitude.  Then when somebody broke into my car and stole all the Christmas presents I had stashed in the trunk, I thought, ‘Somebody is trying to tell me something.’  Now, I don’t swipe anything.  I buy my own paper clips and it won’t break me.  You know I’m a dog-lover.  If your puppy is stealing a sock or a cookie, you make eye contact and say, ‘Is that yours?’ and he’ll drop it.  Why aren’t we that smart?”

WISE GUYS sounds as if written in 1890, but it was composed by Bonnie Windsor, about whom I know very little except that she collaborated with Tom Glazer on RUGGED BUT RIGHT c. 1952.  Our song was recorded and performed by Julia Lee, Turk Murphy, Pat Yankee, and John Gill.  (In his essay on Julia Lee, Bill Millar refers to its “anti-mobster” theme, but Windsor is describing behavior not limited to the Mafia.)

The message of WISE  GUYS is plain: cheating people is shameful and stupid, because you will be punished.  (Also, Windsor suggests that the people you are trying to fool are smarter than you, hence Bumpkin and Slicker.)

It’s performed here by Scott Anthony, banjo and vocal; Bob Schulz, cornet; Doug Finke, trombone; Kim Cusack, clarinet; Ray Skjelbred, piano; Jim Maihack, tuba; Mike Daugherty, drums, at the Sacramento Music Festival, May 26, 2014:

Any resemblance to real-life characters is, of course, unintentional.

May your happiness increase!

PEOPLE SAY THE NICEST THINGS ABOUT PETER

Yesterday, I posted a video of Ray Skjelbred and his Cubs performing BIG BOY here, and the response was so enthusiastic that I thought, “Let’s have another one right now.”

Ninety-five years ago, people were praising Peter — first instrumentally (Herb Wiedoft, Glen Oswald’s Serenaders, the Broadway Dance Orchestra, Paul Specht, Alex Hyde, Red Nichols)  — then vocally (Arthur Fields with Sam Lanin) and the 1932 “Rhythmakers” sessions that Philip Larkin thought the highest art.

Here, as a historical benchmark, is a 1924 version by Glen Oswald’s Serenaders (recorded in Oakland, California)  — a varied arrangement, full of bounce:

“Peter” remains a mystery – – but we do know that he was “so nice,” as proven by four versions of this secular hymn of praise to his romantic ardor recorded in April and May 1932 by the Rhythmakers, a beyond-our-wildest-dreams group featuring Henry Red Allen, Pee Wee Russell, Eddie Condon, Joe Sullivan, Jack Bland, Al Morgan, Zutty Singleton. If you don’t know the Rhythmakers sessions, you are honor-bound to do some of the most pleasurable research.

But here we are in 2014, with Ray Skjelbred and his Cubs at the one-day al fresco jazz party held at Cline Wineries in Napa, California. This wondrous little band — having themselves a time while making sure we do also — is Ray, piano; Kim Cusack, clarinet; Clint Baker, string bass; Katie Cavera, guitar; Jeff Hamilton, drums. Members of the Cubs have been known to burst into song, but this time Peter’s praises must be imagined or implied.  However, Ray and the Cubs are clearly nice and more: no ambiguity there.

The Cubs continue to delight me for the best reasons.  They don’t wear brightly-colored polo shirts; they are humorous but not jokey; they play hot and sweet music — honoring everyone from Frank Teschemacher and Eddie Condon to Jimmie Noone and Jeni Le Gon — without putting on the kind of show that more popular “trad” bands get away with.  They are what Milt Hinton called GOOD MUSIC, and I celebrate them.  Tell the children that such a thing exists, please.

And a digression (what’s a blog for if the CEO can’t digress?) — OH PETER — no comma in the original — was composed by Herb Wiedoft, Gene Rose, and Jesse Stafford.  Wiedoft played trumpet and led his own orchestra, where Rose played piano and wrote arrangements; Stafford played trombone and baritone horn.  And here is the original sheet music, verse and chorus.

I take a deep breath and point out that “peter” has been slang for “penis” since the mid-nineteenth century. . . . so “When you are by my side / That’s when I’m satisfied,” and “There’s nothing sweeter, Peter, Peter,” in the chorus, has always made me wonder, and the verse, new to me, contains the lines, “I’m missin’ / Your love and kissin’ ? And lots of other things too.”  The lyrics do state that Peter is a real person who has been “stepping out,” but if the song were titled OH SAMMY, would it have the same effect?  (What of Morton’s 1929 SWEET PETER, by the way?)  Perhaps you will propose that I need a more virtuous life, but I wonder if this song was sung with a wink at the audience, even though it’s clearly not a double-entendre blues of the period.  Do think on it.  And please admire my superb restraint in not titling this post IS YOUR PETER NICE?

Note: any connections between BIG BOY and OH PETER that readers might perceive are their own responsibility.

May your happiness increase!

SUCH A BIG BOY!

Ray Skjelbred is one of my favorite artists — his scope is too large to be confined to “pianist,” and his Cubs are a favorite band of mine.  I can’t say that the pandemic has brought an onslaught of pleasures, but the absence of real-time gigs has sent me back to my archives, and I find many unseen video-recordings of Ray and his Cubs, which it is my pleasure to share with you.

The Cubs are a winning team, although they don’t employ the usual sporting goods: rather, they create uplifting music no matter where they are or what the tempo is. This performance of a song associated with Bix Beiderbecke and the Wolverines took place during Ray’s mid-summer 2014 California tour (here, they are playing for the Napa Valley Dizieland Jazz Society). The Cubs — bless them! — are Ray, piano, occasional vocal, ethical guidance; Jeff Hamilton, drums and slyness; Clint Baker, string bass, occasional vocal, moral rectitude; Katie Cavera, rhythm guitar, occasional vocal, warmth; Kim Cusack, clarinet, occasional vocal; whimsical sagacity. If you know Claude Hopkins, you’ll get the reference to THE TRAFFIC WAS TERRIFIC, but the Cubs’ vibrations come right through.

Speaking of “big boys,” a story of dubious relevance.  Decades ago, my friend Stu (who reads this blog) and I went to lunch at a kosher delicatessen.  I was hungry and ordered a good deal of food; Stu had eaten and said to the very theatrical woman holding her pad and pencil, “I’ll just have an order of fries,” which we did as a matter of course then.  She looked aghast and said, mixing mock-horror and mock-solicitude, “Such a small portion for such a BIG BOY?” but Stu resisted the Sirens’ song.

All I will say is that this performance — by the clock — is a small portion; it would fit on a V-Disc, but it is a tableful of joy.  And there’s more to come.

May your happiness increase!

COMPLETELY RELAXED: “YELLOW DOG BLUES”: DON EWELL, MARTY GROSZ, NAPPY TROTTIER, EARL MURPHY (Chicago, 1959)

Not a well-known session, but a beautiful one.

I had the original red vinyl record — with its spacious sound — although it has either vanished or is in an inaccessible stack of lps.  I’m thrilled that the stereo version is available on YouTube, and I wanted to share it with you.

Yellow Dog Blues : Don Ewell Quartet : Nappy Trottier, trumpet; Don Ewell, piano; Marty Grosz. guitar; Earl Murphy, string bass.  Recorded in Chicago, August 21, 1959: ATLANTA BLUES / MICHIGAN WATER BLUES / TISHOMINGO BLUES / GEORGIA BO BO (Trottier out) / NEW ORLEANS HOP SCOP BLUES / BLUES MY NAUGHTY SWEETIE GIVES TO ME (Trottier out) / OLE MISS / YELLOW DOG BLUES (Trottier out).

The relaxation these four masters create is quite wonderful: Ewell keeps a fine swinging momentum at any tempo — he seems to float easily, never rushing; Trottier’s sound is huge and sweet; Murphy places the right notes in the right places.  And the survivor of this session, Marty Grosz, makes everything glide and rock.  Marty’s guitar sound is not what we who follow him might be used to: I asked Jim Gicking, Marty’s friend and fellow guitarist, who got the information straight from the source: “Marty was playing plectrum guitar, C-G-D-A, inspired by Condon who he heard met in mid-40s. ‘59 was his transition to 6 string in his unique tuning.”  And something else I hadn’t known: “Earl Murphy started on tenor banjo in 20’s, with Art Hodes at a dancing school.”

The sound that Ewing D. Nunn (1900-77) got from his custom-made microphones was remarkably spacious, and his recordings sound like no one else’s.  To descend into that rabbit-hole of his recording wizardry, click here.

Fully informed, let us savor these irreplaceable sounds: the kind of music that jazz artists create for the right audience or when there’s no audience — for their own delight, now ours.

ATLANTA BLUES:

MICHIGAN WATER BLUES:

TISHOMINGO BLUES:

GEORGIA BO BO:

NEW ORLEANS HOP SCOP BLUES:

BLUES MY NAUGHTY SWEETIE GIVES TO ME:

OLE MISS:

YELLOW DOG BLUES:

For first-hand reminiscences of Nappy Trottier, “who could really play,” by our hero Kim Cusack, recorded in 2018, please click here.

May your happiness increase!

IT’S ALL IN THE DETAILS (July 12, 2014)

Take a deep breath, see that your eyeglasses are clean, ask your neighbor to take a break from leaf blowing . . . and get ready to admire.

What follows is a wonderful assemblage of rewarding details that make a performance soar and shine.  Everybody knows EVERYBODY LOVES MY BABY, ninety years old in 2014, and the song flexibly lends itself to many approaches: a slow-drag tempo with the verse (think: Blue Note Jazzmen) or delightedly skittering around the room, making all the turns (any Fifties Eddie Condon performance).

The creators here are Ray Skjelbred, piano and imagination; Kim Cusack, clarinet and vocal; Jeff Hamilton, drums; Clint Baker, string bass; Katie Cavera, guitar, and this took place at the one-day jazz festival at Cline Cellars Winery in Sonoma, California.

The pleasures of this al fresco performance are double: first, the joy of hearing Ray and his Cubs do anything, and second, the little architectural details that delight and surprise, throughout. Ray says this performance takes some of its inspiration from the 1929 Earl Hines Victor recording of the tune, but it’s clear that the record is a leaping-off place rather than a model to be copied.

The DETAILS I celebrate here are Clint’s arco string bass work, Jeff’s tom-toms, Kim’s magical ability to sing and play at the same time, or nearly so, the duet scored for Cusack and Skjelbred; evocations of Jess Stacy’s 1938 “A-minor thing” even if it’s not in A-minor, and the delicious surprise of the bridge of the last chorus:

I so admire the romping large-scale scope of this performance — people confident and joyous in the sunshine — but the details that poke their heads through from below I find thrilling.

Here’s Earl Hines, playing, leading, and scat-singing:

I couldn’t close this blogpost without commenting that Benny Hill used to announce this song on his television show as EVERY BABY LOVES MY BODY, which works also.

May your happiness increase!

ANNIVERSARY STOMP: HAPPY BIRTHDAY to RAY SKJELBRED!

Ray Skjelbred and his Cubs: from left, Clint Baker, gazing skyward; Kim Cusack, arms folded; Katie Cavera, instantly recognizable; Ray, with blue cap, inviting us to come along; Jeff Hamilton, thinking his thoughts.

I’m honored to share the planet with Ray Skjelbred, who turns eighty today.

At the piano bench as well as elsewhere, he is a poet, a teacher, an inventor and then revealer of secrets, a writer of mysteries populated by velvet moles, eagles, and dogs, where no one gets killed.  Tenaciously yet delicately, he walks through walls as if they were beaded curtains.

Ray Skjelbred calls his Cubs “my favorite band,” and it’s easy to see why — a lovely combination of Basie and Bobcats, illuminated by a sweet lyricism at once on-the-porch and Milt Gabler-joyous.

We salute him; we salute his Cubs, who are Kim Cusack, clarinet and vocal; Katie Cavera, rhythm guitar; Clint Baker, string bass; Jeff Hamilton, drums. These performances took wing at the San Diego Jazz Fest on November 28, 2015.

OH, BABY, DON’T SAY NO, SAY MAYBE:

Kim swears he’s KEEPIN’ OUT OF MISCHIEF NOW, but the jury is still out:

something for the Apex Club Orchestra, EVERY EVENING:

If my wishes aren’t enough, here’s a HAPPY BIRTHDAY (March 10, 1938) from Bobby Hackett, Pete Brown, Joe Marsala, Joe Bushkin, Ray Biondi, Artie Shapiro, George Wettling, Leo Watson.  Since it’s mislabeled below, I also offer the nostalgic maroon Commodore label, a jazz madeline:

as it appeared on turntables:

To borrow Whitney Balliett’s words, “Bless Ray Skjelbred.  And may he prosper.”

May your happiness increase!

THE WINNING TEAM: RAY SKJELBRED and HIS CUBS at the SAN DIEGO JAZZ FEST: KIM CUSACK, CLINT BAKER, KATIE CAVERA, JEFF HAMILTON and MARC CAPARONE (November 27, 2015)

Were you to call me a “hoarder,” I would be insulted, but I have been hoarding lovely treasures — previously unseen performance videos — since March 12, 2020, which was the last jazz gig I attended.  One of the treasures I dug up recently is a set played and sung by Ray Skjelbred and his Cubs at 2015 the San Diego Jazz Fest: Ray, piano and vocal; Kim Cusack, clarinet; Jeff Hamilton, drums, Clint Baker, string bass; Katie Cavera, guitar, with a guest appearance by Marc Caparone, cornet, on the closing song.

I’d held off on these because my place in the room didn’t allow me to see Ray at the keyboard — a pleasure I always want — and the lighting person, believing that jazz is best played in semi-darkness, had made everyone purple.  Whether it was allegiance to the Lake Isle of Innisfree or a secret love of Barney the dinosaur, I didn’t ask, but it was visually unnerving.

The music, however, was and is delightful.

I missed the first bars of James P. Johnson’s AIN’T ‘CHA GOT MUSIC? — but such lapses are, I hope, forgivable:

Many vintage jazz fans know YOU’RE SOME PRETTY DOLL in George Brunies’ UGLY CHILE — but this version has no mockery in it:

Ray loves the optimistic song LIVIN’ IN A GREAT BIG WAY (from the 1935 KING OF BURLESQUE, and so do we.  Bring back the New Deal!

Marc Caparone, cornet, always welcome, joins in for I FOUND A NEW BABY, what George Avakian would call “the final blow-off”:

I know I’m out of my depth when I resort to sports metaphors, but these Cubs always win the game.  Bless them, and I hope to see a Reunion.

May your happiness increase!

 

JIM DAPOGNY, NOT FORGOTTEN

Jim Dapogny, September 2, 2018, photograph by Laura Beth Wyman (Wyman Video)

He answered to various names.  Jim Dapogny, James Dapogny, Professor Dapogny, “American musicologist,” as an online source calls him.  I prefer to think of him as admired artist, departed friend.

Jim would have turned eighty today, September 3, 2020. He didn’t make it that far, moving somewhere undefined and inaccessible on March 6, 2019.  I have not gotten used to his absence, and I am not alone.  Others knew him better, longer, at closer range, but his absence is something tangible.

I promised myself I would not write a post on the metaphysics of bereavement, but rather offer evidence so those who never heard Jim in person would understand more deeply why he is so missed.

I can’t reproduce here the pleasure of having him speak knowledgeably yet without pretension about the dishes of brightly-colored ethnic food spread in front of us.  Nor can I convey to you his gleaming eyes as he spoke of a favorite dog or the mysterious voicings of a Thirties Ellington record.  And it is beyond my powers to summon up the way he would nearly collapse into giggles while retelling a cherished interlude of stand-up comedy — not a joke, but a presentation — by someone none of us had heard of.

Those who were there will understand the serious yet easy pleasure of his company, the way he was always himself, wise but never insisting that we bow down to his wisdom.  I can only write that he was was boyish in his joys but modest about his own accomplishments, and so gracious in his eager openness to different perspectives.  Those who never had the good fortune of seeing him plain — counting off a tempo by clapping his hands in mid-air, crossing one leg over the other when particularly happy at the keyboard — should know that they missed someone extraordinary.

Jim and I communicated more by email than in any other way, but I did meet him once a year at Jazz at Chautauqua, then the Allegheny Jazz Party, then the Cleveland Classic Jazz Party, from 2004 to 2016, with a year out when he couldn’t join us because of illness.  I made a point of going from New York to Maryland to hear his “East Coast Chicagoans” in 2012, and visited him and dear friends in Ann Arbor a few years later.  It is one of my greatest regrets, on a substantial list, that I never made it back for a return engagement.

Our remarkable friend Laura Beth Wyman caught Jim explaining something to me in the informal classroom of a parking lot at the 2014 Evergreen Jazz Festival, and I treasure this moment:

But let us move out of the parking lot before darkness falls.

Here is Jim, with Mike Karoub, cello; Rod McDonald, guitar; Kurt Krahnke, string bass, performing his own FIREFLY (blessedly captured by Wyman Video):

Jim loved the blues, and enjoyed window-shopping in their apparently austere structure, peering in at unusual angles, so what was expected — nothing more than three chords repeating over twelve bars — was all of a sudden a hand-knit tapestry, subtle but ornamented, full of dips and whorls.

I caught him “warming up the piano” at the 2014 Jazz at Chautauqua, in what I think of as full reverie, monarch of an emotional landscape where he and the blues were the only inhabitants, where he could ignore people walking by, and also ignore my camera.  This, dear readers, is the quiet triumph of thought, of feeling, of beauty:

Here he and beloved colleagues create and recreate the TIN ROOF BLUES (al fresco, in rain or post-rain, at the 2014 Evergreen Jazz Festival): Jon-Erik Kellso, trumpet; Chris Smith, trombone; Kim Cusack, clarinet; Russ Whitman, tenor saxophone; Rod McDonald, guitar; Dean Ross, string bass; Pete Siers, drums:

Jim was thoughtful but not morose.  He delighted in swing and stomp, so here’s COME EASY, GO EASY LOVE, from the same weekend:

One of his set pieces not only was a rousing jam on more austere themes but also a nod to his love of comic surprise, WASHINGTON POST MARCH:

There is much more that could be said, more that can be seen and heard.

But the important thing is this: he remains a model for me and others.  Quietly and without affectation, Jim lived so deeply and generously that we will not forget him nor stop missing him.

May your happiness increase!

SKATING TEN FEET ABOVE THE GROUND: RAY SKJELBRED and his CUBS (America’s Classic Jazz Festival, Lacey, Washington: June 28/30, 2019)

An inspiring Cub relic.

Hearing Ray Skjelbred and his Cubs, I recall the folktale where the wind and the sun (having nothing better to do) wager about which one can get a man to remove his coat.  The wind blows, but the man merely wraps his coat tightly around him.  The sun gently beams down on the man, and sweat starts to pour off his forehead, so he is glad to take off that coat.  Persuasion, not force.

That tale stands for so much jazz that I admire.  Sometimes it’s ferocious, even bombastic — ensemble choruses at the end of a performance, and we cheer.  Perhaps I am thinking of the Great Dane puppy who just wants to greet you, and then you’re both on the floor.  Surprise!

But I secretly revere the sweet stealth of music that says, “Come a little closer.  Of course, nothing is happening.  Just set a spell and enjoy,” and, seductively, osmotically, we become spellbound.  The finest example is the Basie rhythm section; then, Duke and Blanton; Fats Waller on PRETTY DOLL; Sir Charles Thompson on Vanguard; and Ray Skjelbred and his Cubs.

Thirteen months ago, give or take a day, what I call the Pacific Northwest edition of Ray and his Cubs appeared as a guest band at America’s Classic Jazz Festival, in Lacey, Washington.  I wasn’t there to record it, but Ray’s faithful videographer RaeAnn Berry was, and so I can share a few videos with you: dancing or skating without ever doing something so mundane as touching the ground.

They are Ray, piano; Kim Cusack, clarinet; Jeff Hamilton, drums; Matt Weiner, string bass; Josh Roberts, acoustic guitar.

OUT OF NOWHERE, June 30:

IDA (for Auntie Ida Melrose Shoufler, of course), June 28:

and with a nod to Joe and Bing, SOMEDAY SWEETHEART, again from June 30:

I could have called this post ADVENTURES IN MEDIUM-TEMPO, and you would have gotten the point as well.  Or, this photograph of two Deities who took human form for some decades to show us how it should be done:

Blessings on Ray, his Cubs, and RaeAnn.

May your happiness increase!

 

LESSONS IN LEVITATION: RAY SKJELBRED and his CUBS: RAY SKJELBRED, KIM CUSACK, JOSH ROBERTS, MATT WEINER, JEFF HAMILTON (June 30, 2019)

An inspiration for this inspiring little band.

Thanks to the ever=devoted SFRaeAnn, we have a five-minute treatise on the most inspired floating, created in front of an audience at America’s Classic Jazz Festival in Lacey, Washington, on June 30, 2019.  The players here are Ray Skjelbred, making that old keyboard sound exactly like new; Kim Cusack, clarinet; Josh Roberts, guitar; Matt Weiner, string bass; Jeff Hamilton, drums. And their particular text is LADY BE GOOD, by George and Ira Gershwin, first performed in 1924 and immediately taken up by jazz musicians, dance bands, and singers of all kinds — from Ben Bernie and the California Ramblers to the present day.

Perhaps because tempos in performance naturally increase, and because it is such a familiar set of chord changes (from the 1936 Jones-Smith, Incorporated recording on) it’s usually played at a brisk tempo.  This performance is a sly glide, a paper airplane dreamily navigating the air currents before coming to a gentle landing.  And — taking the Basie inspiration to new heights — this performance so lovingly balances appreciative silence with sound.

It doesn’t need my annotations: it reveals itself to anyone willing to pay attention.  Watch the faces of the musicians; hear their delighted affirmations.  As James Chirillo says, music was made:

Blessings on them all, past and present, visible and ectoplasmic.  The Cubs lift us up but never drop us down.

May your happiness increase!

“ASSES IN SEATS” AND THE JAZZ ECOSYSTEM

Here’s something comfortable, enticing, seductive.

It’s not my living room, I assure you: too neat, no CDs.

Jon-Erik Kellso, trumpet; Chuck Wilson, alto saxophone; Ehud Asherie, piano; Kelly Friesen, string bass; Andrew Swann, drums.  “Sweet Rhythm,” October 26, 2008, THERE’LL BE SOME CHANGES MADE:

Tal Ronen, string bass; Mark Shane, piano; Dan Block, tenor sax.  “Casa Mezcal,” October 26, 2014, I’LL ALWAYS BE IN LOVE WITH YOU:

(This is not a post about numerology or the significance of October 26 in jazz.)

Tim Laughlin, clarinet; Connie Jones, cornet; Clint Baker, trombone; Chris Dawson, piano; Katie Cavera, guitar; Marty Eggers, string bass; Hal Smith, drums.  “Sweet and Hot Music Festival,”  September 5, 2011, TOGETHER:

Ray Skjelbred and the Cubs: Ray, piano, composer; Kim Cusack, clarinet; Clint Baker, string bass, Katie Cavera, guitar; Jeff Hamilton, drums. “Sacramento Music Festival,” May 25, 2014, BLUES FOR SIR CHARLES:

I will explain.

“Sweet Rhythm” was once “Sweet Basil,” a restaurant-with-jazz or the reverse, in New York City.  Now it is just a restaurant.  “Casa Mezcal,” across the street from the Tenement Museum, also offered jazz as well as food.  Now, only food.  The two California festivals depicted above are only memories now.  (I could have included the Cajun, Bourbon Street, Roth’s Steakhouse, Banjo Jim’s, the Garage, the Bombay Club, Jazz at Chautauqua, and perhaps a dozen other vacancies in the cosmos — in my time, which isn’t the whole history of the music.)  Jazz clubs become apartments, drugstores, dormitories, nail salons.  Or what was once a jazz bar now has karaoke night and game night.

That’s not difficult to take in.  Everything changes.  “Things are tough all over,” as my father said.

But I’ve included the chair and ottoman because so many jazz listeners prefer the comforts of home to live music, and thus, venues collapse and are not replaced.

The expression I’ve heard from festival producers is the blunt ASSES IN SEATS. It presumes that other body parts are attached to the asses, of course.  But it’s simple economics.  When a club owner looks out at the landscape of empty chairs and tables with napkins undisturbed, when there are more musicians on the stage than there are people in the audience, you can imagine the mental cogitations that result.  This has nothing to do with musical or artistic quality — I’ve heard terrible music played to filled rooms, and once in a New York club I was the audience (let that sink in) — not even me, myself, and I — for the first few songs by a peerless band.  And if you think that musicians are a substantial part of the club budget, it isn’t so: a world-famous jazz musician told me once of being paid sixty dollars for three hours’ work, and some of my favorite musicians go from fifty-and-seventy-five dollar gigs, or they play “for the door.”

And as an aside, if you go to a club and sit through two sets with your three-or-five dollar Coke or well drink or standard beer, you are subsidizing neither the club or the music.  Festival economics are different, but even the price of the ticket will not keep huge enterprises solvent.  I hear, “Oh, the audience for jazz is aging and dying,” and the numbers prove that true, but I think inertia is a stronger factor than mortality, with a side dish of complacency.  And people who study the swing-dance scene say that what I am writing about here is also true for younger fans / dancers.

So before you say to someone, “I’m really a devoted jazz fan,” or proudly wear the piano-keyboard suspenders, or get into arguments on Facebook over some cherished premise, ask yourself, “How active is my commitment to this music?  When was the last time I supported it with my wallet and my person?”

I do not write these words from the summit of moral perfection.  I could have gone to two gigs tonight but chose to stay home and write this blog.  And I do not go to every gig I could . . . energy and health preclude that.  And I am also guilty, if you will, in providing musical nourishment for viewers through technology, so that some people can live through YouTube.  I admit both of these things, but on the average I go to more jazz gigs than some other people; I eat and drink and tip at the jazz clubs; I publicize the music here and elsewhere.

But you.  Do you take the music for granted, like air and water?  Do you assume it will go on forever even if you never come out of your burrow and say hello to it, that other people will keep supporting it?  Do you say, “I must get there someday!” and not put wheels under that wish?  Mind you, there are exceptions.  Not everyone lives close enough to live music; not everyone is well-financed, energetic, or healthy.  But if you can go and you don’t, then to me you have lost the right to complain about clubs closing, your favorite band disbanding, your beloved festival becoming extinct. Jazz is a living organism, thus it needs nourishment that you, and only you, can provide.  Inhaling Spotify won’t keep it alive, nor will complaining about how your fellow citizens are too foolish to appreciate it.

If you say you love jazz, you have to get your ass out of your chair at regular intervals and put it in another chair, somewhere public, where living musicians are playing and singing.  Or you can stay home and watch it wither.

May your happiness increase!

ANCIENT SONGS OF LOVE: BOB SCHULZ and his FRISCO JAZZ BAND at “SOUNDS OF MARDI GRAS,” Fresno, California: BOB SCHULZ, RAY TEMPLIN, KIM CUSACK, RAY SKJELBRED, DOUG FINKE, SCOTT ANTHONY, JIM MAIHACK (February 9, 2019)

 

 

I don’t think we automatically perceive hot jazz as the music of romance.  After all, would you woo your Dearest One with ST. JAMES INFIRMARY, YOU RASCAL YOU, PANAMA, or GET OFF KATIE’S HEAD?  But the hot jazz expressions of the late Twenties onwards were based on the music of love as expressed in pop songs with lyrics.  These songs were accessible to the crowd, they could be danced to, and they could be swung.  Think of the recordings of Billie Holiday, Mildred Bailey, Louis Prima, Eddie Condon, and a thousand others up to the present day.  (And I like the coincidence that the first song recorded by Louis Armstrong and his Hot Five was MY HEART, by pianist Lil Hardin Armstrong.)

It seems that for every “You trampled on my soul, you heartless cad” song, there are two dozen celebrating the joys of fulfilling love: TEA FOR TWO, I’VE GOT A FEELING I’M FALLING, EXACTLY LIKE YOU, SWEET LORRAINE, AS LONG AS I LIVE, HONEY, WHEN I TAKE MY SUGAR TO TEA, I WISH I WERE TWINS, AIN’T SHE SWEET, ALWAYS, SWEET AND SLOW, I ONLY HAVE EYES FOR YOU, YOU DO SOMETHING TO ME, I WOULD DO ANYTHING FOR YOU, I’M CRAZY ‘BOUT MY BABY, I WANT TO BE HAPPY, and so on.

In that spirit, I present four swinging love songs (vocals by Bob Schulz and Scott Anthony) performed and recorded at the “Sounds of Mardi Gras,” in Fresno, California, on February 9, 2019.  The creators here are Bob Schulz, cornet, vocal; Doug Finke, trombone; Kim Cusack, clarinet; Ray Skjelbred, piano; Scott Anthony, banjo, vocal; Jim Maihack, tuba, Ray Templin, drums, vocal.

Meaning no disrespect to the rest of the Frisco Jazz Band, please pay serious attention to what Mr. Skjelbred is doing, in ensemble as well as solo: I’d characterize it as his setting off small melodious fireworks in every performance.  As he does!

Here’s the most ancient chanson d’amour, Tony Jackson’s PRETTY BABY:

and the song Louis used as his entry to a huge popular following (while always remaining himself), I CAN’T GIVE YOU ANYTHING BUT LOVE:

JUNE NIGHT, with a startling Skjelbred solo:

I CAN’T BELIEVE THAT YOU’RE IN LOVE WITH ME at a nice easy tempo:

This congenial, amiable ensemble will return to Fresno in February 2020.

May your happiness increase!

RAY SKJELBRED and his CUBS at OLYMPIA, WASHINGTON (June 2019): RAY SKJELBRED, KIM CUSACK, JEFF HAMILTON, MATT WEINER, JOSH ROBERTS

I was closer to home — Beantown in Beverly, Massachusetts — when Ray Skjelbred and his Cubs played several sets (more than forty videos recorded and posted by Rae Ann Berry) at the 28th Annual Greater Olympia Dixieland Jazz Festival, in Lacey, Washington.  Ray also appeared at a crucial member of the Evergreen Jazz Band, which Rae Ann also captured on video for us.

Three of the Cubs were the heroes we know: Ray, piano, vocal, and moral leadership; Kim Cusack, clarinet, vocal; Jeff Hamilton, drums, banter.  But two other stars — Clint Baker and Katie Cavera — couldn’t be there, so Ray brought two splendid young musician-colleagues from the Pacific Northwest, whom you should get to know right away: Matt Weiner, string bass, vocal; Josh Roberts, guitar.  What music they make!

Here are a few glorious samples: finding the rest is not difficult and worth the clicking and mousing.

BOLL WEEVIL BLUES, one I’ve never heard Ray play and sing:

I’LL ALWAYS BE IN LOVE WITH YOU: what if Kim Cusack had been the right age to sit in with the 1937 Basie band?

IDA (for Ida Melrose Shoufler, of course, “Auntie”):

and a blues inspired by an Eddie Condon Commodore record, BEAT TO THE SOCKS:

and another Condon homage, IMPROVISATION FOR THE MARCH OF TIME:

I think of “Buy them, trade them, collect the set!” but that isn’t right: how about “Watch them, enjoy them, honor this music!” You can find more of Rae Ann’s treasures here.

May your happiness increase!

“LARKIN’S LAW” AND ITS DISCONTENTS, or “WHO’S SORRY NOW?”

When I first read poet / jazz-lover / jazz-essayist Philip Larkin’s “law,” some forty years ago, I thought it sardonically amusing, as was Groucho’s “I wouldn’t want to belong to any club that would have me as a member.”  Now, I find it and its effects quite sad:

“If I were to frame Larkin’s Law of Reissues, it would say that anything you haven’t got already probably isn’t worth bothering about.  In other words, if someone tries to persuade you to buy a limited edition of the 1924-25 sessions by Paraffin Joe and his Nitelites, keep your pockets buttoned up: if they were any good, you’d have heard of them at school, as you did King Oliver, and have laid out your earliest pocket money on them.”

I’ve always had an odd admiration for Larkin, while making the necessary effort to ignore much of what he wrote: he is the embarrassing relative at the holiday dinner table who shares his racist, misogynistic views.  I am also certain that had we met, he would have satirized me in his diary that evening.  But his vigorous parochialism ran parallel to some of my taste: he thought the 1932 Rhythmakers sessions the height of Western civilization, a sentiment I can understand.

Larkin’s Law would seem valid to many in “the jazz audience” I know, a credo in support of Their Kind of Music.  Caveat immediately: there are so many jazzes and thus so many audiences that I can only speak of the small slice I experience, in person, in correspondence, and through social media.

With JAZZ LIVES as my creation for over a decade, I continue to be thrilled by the music yet often puzzled by the provincialism of the response it receives.  Of course this blog is an expression of my own tastes, which have been shaped by experience(s).  I prefer X to Y even if received wisdom says I shouldn’t.  And although my response may be simply “That band doesn’t move me,” I stand by my aesthetics.

However, even though jazz was once a radical music, an art form relegated to the basement where it wouldn’t upset the pets, the audience can be aesthetically conservative, defining itself in opposition.

As Sammut of Malta writes, people view art as a box rather than as a spectrum.

I think many of the jazz-consumers have decided What They Like and it is often What They Have Always Liked.  Their loyalty is fierce, even in the face of unsettling evidence.  My analogy is the restaurant at which one has a brilliant meal, then a good meal, then a dreadful meal — but one keeps returning, because one always eats there.  Familiarity wins out over the courage to experiment.  “I love this band.  I first heard them in 1978!”

As an aside: I’ve watched audience members at jazz festivals who race to see Their Favorite Band and then talk through the set, applauding loudly what they could not have heard, convinced that they are having the time of their lives.  (This phenomenon is a subject for another blog: it worked its way in here and it deserves its few words.)

Loyalty is a lovely thing, and audience members certainly may gravitate to what pleases them.  If you tell me that Taco Bell is the best Mexican food that ever was, I can protest, I can meet you after lunch, I can invite you to the taqueria down the street, but changing your mind is difficult.  You like what you like for a complex network of reasons, many of them unexamined.

What does worry me is when affection becomes rigidity and turns into a rejection of anything a few degrees away from the Ideal.  It happens on both ends of the aesthetic continuum.  One of my Facebook fans used to dismiss music she found too modern as “Too swingy.”  I suggested to her that jazz of the kind she preferred also swung, but it was clear that some music I embraced seemed heretical to her.  Conversely, “I don’t like banjos and tubas” is a less-heard but prevalent response, to which I want to say, “Have you heard A play the banjo or B play the tuba?  Perhaps your condemnation needs to be refined to ‘I prefer rhythm guitar and string bass in rhythm sections, but other ways to swing can be pleasing as well’.”  I can even say, “Have you heard Bernard Addison and John Kirby in 1933?” but does everyone recognize those names?

In practical terms, Larkin’s Law means that many people reject as unworthy what they do not immediately recognize.  Closing the door on anything even slightly different will not help those who want the music they love to go on.  And it will deny the listener pleasurable surprises.

I, too, know jazz parochialism.  When I was 14, I could have told you that I liked jazz.  Pressed for a definition of what I liked, I would have said Louis Armstrong, Jack Teagarden, Benny Goodman small groups, and not much else.  Soon I added the Billie Holiday small groups, 1940 Ellington, 1938 Basie, and so on.  It took a long time before I could “hear” Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie with pleasure and understanding, but I knew there was something worth investigating.  I have not gotten beyond early Ornette or Wilbur Sweatman, but I keep listening and attending live jazz performances.

I know some JAZZ LIVES readers and friends have more open ears than what I describe.  And some of them, whom I celebrate happily, have written to say, “Thank you, Michael, for introducing me to _____ and _________, whom I wouldn’t have heard without your blog.”  Reading this, I think gleefully, “My work on the planet is done,” and go to do the dishes with a big grin.  But I wonder how many listeners have seriously considered, let us say, both Mike Davis and Lena Bloch, Kim Cusack and Ted Brown, Paul Asaro and Joel Forrester, the Chicago Cellar Boys and the Microscopic Septet, Kirk Knuffke and Danny Tobias — to pick a few vivid examples.

My apparent ecumenicism does not mean I like everything.  And I receive a good number of solicitations from music publicists and even CDs: I listen before saying, “No, that’s not for me.”  Rarely do I think, “Wow, that’s bad music!”; rather, I say, “What that artist is doing is not pleasing to me, but that says much about me as well as what it says about the art.”

We all, I believe, fell in love with certain varieties of this art because they made us feel excited, joyous, alive, exuberant — a WOW moment.  For some, the Love Object may be Oliver’s ROOM RENT BLUES or the closing chorus of the Hot Seven’s WEARY BLUES, or a Decca Lunceford, the Jones-Smith session, Hawkins’ SIRIUS . . . .  And no one would propose to say to an enraptured listener, “You really shouldn’t listen to that,” unless one wants to argue.  But what if some musician or band offered a serious WOW moment and the listener had refused to try it out, because, “I don’t listen to anything that isn’t . . . . “?  Should we be so in love with what we love that we keep our ears closed, as if it would be fatal for us to spend two or three minutes with a music that didn’t instantly please us?

Our preferences are strong.  But occasionally those preferences are so negative that they make me envision my fellow jazz-lovers as irritable toddlers.  “Honey, we have A through L for lunch.  What would you like?” The response, in a howl, “No!  No!  No!  Want R!”

There is another manifestation of this calcified reaction, one I perceive regularly through JAZZ LIVES.  Certain artists have powerful magnetism: call it star quality, so whatever they play or sing attracts an audience.  (It is reminiscent of the imagined book with the widest audience, called LINCOLN’S DOCTOR’S DOG.)  I have often thought that the most-desired video I could offer would have technically dazzling music at a fast tempo, performed by young people, women and men both.  A little sexuality, a drum solo, novelty but not too much, evocations of this or the other jazz Deity . . . it’s a hit!

But it also should be music made by Famous Names.  You can compile your own list of stars who often play and sing beautifully.  But when I offer a video without Famous Names, without the visual novelty, fewer people go to it, enacting Larkin’s Law.  “I don’t know who that is.  How could (s)he be any good?”

Do we listen with our ears or our eyes or with our memory for names?

Could listeners, for instance, make serious judgments about music they knew nothing about — the Blindfold Test?  I admire Hot Lips Page above most mortals, but I have learned to be courageous enough to say, “I love Lips, but he seems bored here — he’s going through the motions.”  Whether I am right or not matters less, but making the critical judgment is, I think, crucial.

These thoughts are provoked by Larkin’s Law as an indication of historical allegiance rather than expansive taste, of a narrowness of reaction rather than a curiosity about the art form.

What I conceive as the ideal may seem paradoxical, but I applaud both a willingness to listen outside one’s tightly-defended parameters and, at the same time, to be seriously aware in one’s appreciation and not turn habit into advocacy.  Let us love the music and let us also hear it.

And, in honor of Philip Larkin, who may have stubbornly denied himself pleasure by hewing to his own asphyxiating principles, here are some of his artistic touchstones:

A personal postscript: JAZZ LIVES gives me great joy, and I am not fishing for praise.  Many people have told me in person how much they appreciate my efforts.  But I perceive provincialism creeping up the limbs of the jazz body as sure as rigor mortis, and I would like this music to continue, vigorous, when I am no longer around to video it.

May your happiness increase!

A FULL SET OF HOT AND SWEET MUSIC: BOB SCHULZ and his FRISCO JAZZ BAND (Part Three): BOB SCHULZ, KIM CUSACK, RAY SKJELBRED, DOUG FINKE, JIM MAIHACK, SCOTT ANTHONY, RAY TEMPLIN (Fresno “Sounds of Mardi Gras,” Feb. 8, 2019)

They continue to swing, which is very reassuring.  And here is a combination platter of lovely music from the Fresno “Sounds of Mardi Gras” jazz festival, recorded on February 8, 2019.  The generous creators are Bob Schulz, cornet, vocal; Kim Cusack, clarinet; Doug Finke, trombone; Ray Skjelbred, piano; Scott Anthony, banjo, vocal; Jim Maihack, tuba; Ray Templin, drums, vocal.

 

From that same rewarding weekend, here’s Part One and Two by the Frisco Jazz Band, whose secret is a lovely cohesive swing, no matter what the tempo.

But wait! There’s more!

NEW ORLEANS SHUFFLE:

Walter Donaldson’s pretty MY BUDDY, sung by Scott:

The Horace Gerlach standard, SWING THAT MUSIC:

A blue suit and wedding bells for EMALINE:

For Irving Berlin and Bunny Berigan, MARIE:

For George and Gracie, also James P. and Max, LOVE NEST, sung by Ray:

The Hot Five’s ONCE IN A WHILE:

(WHEN IT’S) DARKNESS ON THE DELTA, sung by Scott:

And a closing statement of willingness-to-please, sung by Bob, I WOULD DO ANYTHING FOR YOU:

And they do.

I don’t think the other gentlemen of the ensemble will mind my suggestion that once the intent listeners have savored these videos, that they go back and listen closely to the impish and passionate Ray Skjelbred, whose sly adept subversions in solo and accompaniment are beyond remarkable.  I seated myself where I did to video so that I could hear and see him with greater clarity, and his singular playing is singularly rewarding.

This set is in honor of my friend Judy Smith, who didn’t make it to the festival, but enjoys the musical bounces with great enthusiasm.

May your happiness increase!

JAMES. JIM. PROF.

James Dapogny died yesterday.  He was 78 and had been keeping cancer at bay for nine years until he could do it no longer.

Because the absence of people I love is deeply painful, I have embraced the notion that the dead don’t go away, that their temporal selves leave us but they merely move into other neighborhoods.  With Jim’s death, I cannot keep that illusion afloat.  There is a void much larger than his human form that will never be filled.  No parade of clicked-on Facebook sad emojis can express this.  And this sorrow isn’t unique to me: ask anyone who knew him, who learned from him, who savored his creativity and his company.

Prof. and still-active cellist Mike Karoub to Prof’s left. Photograph by Laura Beth Wyman, 2014.

An expansive, restlessly diligent and curious person, he had several names.  When I first met him (at Jazz at Chautauqua, 2004) I timidly called him “Mr. Dapogny,” and because I was shy, my voice was low and he referred to me — just once — as “soft-voiced Professor Steinman” while we were both leafing through Thirties sheet music.  Later, I bought all his records and CDs, where he was “James,” but I summoned up the courage to call him “Jim” to his face and — referring to him in the third person, I took on the affectionate coinage that Laura Beth Wyman, whom he called “my best student in thirty years,” and his dear friend, had created: “Prof.”

I will hand off to Prof.’s friend Kim Cusack for his memories:

Jim was puckish, never morose, so my first musical example is a jam-session rouser.  Keep your ears on the pianist, who explodes into a solo at 4:14:

Although he was characterized as a stride pianist and he loved the music of Fats Waller and Alex Hill, he dismissed that categorization, and told me that his mentors were Stacy, Sullivan, and Morton.  In the fashion of those three great individualists, his playing was full of spiky surprises — arresting commentaries that could woo and distract in the ensemble or when he accompanied a soloist.  I think he found stride conventions constricting, possibly monotonous, so I hear him as a Pee Wee Russell of the piano: going his own completely recognizable ways while uplifting all around him, creating bright-sounding treble lines but also providing solidly original harmonic support and rhythmic propulsion.  He was never predictable but always heroically satisfying.

But LADY BE GOOD, because it was impromptu (rain and wind made reading charts impossible) was not what Prof. liked best.  He delighted in “paper,” that is, arrangements — but they were charts with plenty of breathing room for the splendid soloists he hired and nurtured.  Here’s his powerfully blue version of the Ellington-Stewart MOBILE BAY, also from Evergreen 2014:

and another 2014 romper — this time, because the weather was better, the band could use Prof.’s charts:

Here is Prof. and a band in 2012 — note his dry whimsical introduction:

and a piano solo on one of the most familiar jazz ballads, uniquely Dapogny:

Jim (I have shifted to the non-academic because it feels warmer) was also terribly funny, in person and in print.  David Sager says he had “a sly and delicious wit,” which all of us experienced.  He was a wordsmith, a jester, a stand-up comedian, a sharp-edged deflater, a Michigan S.J. Perelman.  A deadpan improvising comedian, he didn’t mug and pander on the stand, preferring to let the heartfelt music speak.

He and I exchanged emails from 2011 to October 2018: a coda from one of his:

P.S. I don’t know if you ever read the columns of humorist Dave Barry, but I did because Wayne Jones used to send me bundles of them. The ones I liked best were those entitled “Ask Mr. Language Person,” in which Barry answered usage questions ostensibly sent in by readers. One asked about rules for the use of quotation marks in small-business signs. Barry answered that quotation marks
were to be used on words chosen at random. Then he gave three examples.
Try Our “Pies”
Try “Our” Pies
“Try” Our Pies
To me this is absolutely hilarious. It still makes me laugh.

My relationship with Jim grew and deepened.  When I first met him, I was intimidated by his comic rapier, and when I got to know him a little better, I asked him to put it down, which he did without fuss.  The more I encountered him, the more I admired him.  And finally I — like everyone else who knew him — loved him.

I took him on as one of my not-so-secret spiritual fathers, even though he was only a dozen years my senior.  The blend of humor and toughness (he could have shown up in a 1935 Warner Brothers picture, although not as the gangster lead) reminded me of my own father, so he was dear to me.  I originally wrote, “I hope I didn’t embarrass him too much with my direct affection,” but on second thought I hope I did embarrass him: that way I would know he had received the message I was sending.

He was extremely kind, superbly generous.  I had asked him to write a letter for me in support of a sabbatical I was hoping for, and I dare not read that letter now because I would not be able to write through tears.  And every so often he would praise something I’d written, which would make me feel like a peculiarly graceful colossus of words and insights.  (Of course, now and again, he corrected my wayward grammar, which made me wince and then rush to fix the lapse.)

Although he knew his own worth, he was infuriatingly modest.  I, and then Laura, shot videos of him in performance at Jazz at Chautauqua, the Evergreen Jazz Festival, and the Cleveland Classic Jazz Party.  The last email response I got from Jim — late October 2018 — concerned a trio video I had sent him to see if  he would agree to my posting it.  (Sometimes when I sent him videos, the answer was silence, which I could never tell whether it was “God, no!” or “I am too busy doing other things more important than considering my own performances.)  His response, the names redacted in true CIA fashion, was, “OK with me, but this doesn’t scream out for preservation except by being documentation that I once weaseled my way into the company of H- and R-.”

He was always busy transcribing charts for PORK, researching new old music, and more.  But I think his secret passion was in what we call, for want of a more gracious term, mentoring.  Ask any musician who played or sang with him: Jon-Erik Kellso to Dawn Giblin to Mike Karoub to Erin Morris to the members of his bands.  Like Ellington, he saw very clearly what strengths we had, and worked tirelessly to bolster us — offering the most gentle helping hand to make people more glorious versions of their natural selves.

One of my great pleasures, was my being able to visit him and Laura and Erin for a few days in 2016.  Yes, Jim was a scholar of all things musical — not just Jelly Roll Morton and James P. Johnson’s operas — and his range was broad.  When I visited Ann Arbor, the plan was that I would stay in a quietly nondescript motel, and work on my blog over breakfast (instant oatmeal from paper envelopes, and coffee) and then Jim and I, sometimes Laura along as well, would eat deliriously good ethnic food in some restaurant that only Jim knew — Indian, Korean, Thai, Chinese, Vietnamese — and the conversation would become expertly culinary as well, because he could cook, away from the piano.  He was truly insightful but ready to applaud others’ insights.

I dreamed of visiting him again, but missed my chance, just as I missed the opportunity to help bring Jim’s band once again to the Evergreen Jazz Festival in Colorado.

It would please me immensely if others who knew Prof., or James, or Jim, would add their voices to this post.  I will close with one of the great beautiful moments captured by video.  I am particularly proud of this 2015 performance because of the lovely music and that it was recorded by my friend Laura Beth Wyman.  Jim’s own FIREFLY:

The moral that James Dapogny’s life and art and generous friendship offers us is very simple.  We are fireflies.  At our best, we are brilliant: we trace paths along the summer night sky.  But we are fragile.  What can we do but live our lives so that when we depart, we are irrevocably missed?  As he is.

I will eschew my usual closing — consider it here but unsaid — to send love and sorrow to Jim’s wife, Gail, to his family, to his friends, to all the people he touched.

Adieu, James.  Farewell, Prof.  We love you, Jim.